For long, it has been a frozen conflict of who has the right to the Artic and its potential resources. As warmer climate melts the ice and reshapes the area, a potential conflict in the Artic Sea between USA, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark is heating up.


The Arctic, and not the Middle East, will soon be on top of Russian-U.S. agenda, a Russian top diplomat says as the Arctic is about to be divided between the old rivals and a handful of other hopefuls. Credit: skeeze, Pixabay

It used to be an almost joyful and friendly conflict. Both Denmark and Canada claim the tiny Hans Island as theirs and both nations have put their flag up to claim the barren island. But both flags cannot stand and claiming territory at the same time. So, every now and then, Danish forces removes Canada’s flag to replace it with theirs and leave a bottle of schnapps and a sign saying “Welcome to the Danish Island”. Some time after, they can come back to a Canadian flag, a bottle of Canadian whiskey and a sign saying “Welcome to Canada”. 

The dispute had been going on since the 1930’s and both Canada and Denmark’s foreign ministers have regular been in talks, but so far no solution have been made. Even the military have been involved several times, but so far, the dispute has been seen more as friendly teasing.

Such light-hearted times seem now distant in the Arctic as Russia is building nuclear-powered ice breaker-giants and military bases. Meanwhile newly confirmed US secretary of state James Mattis – nicknamed “Mad Dog” – is saying that it’s “not to our advantage to leave any part of the world” to others at his confirmation hearing and Moscow’s Arctic moves has been described as “aggressive steps”. Meanwhile Canada, Denmark and Norway have not let go of their bid for their piece of the Arctic ice cake.

New thaw territory

One of the simple reasons for the conflict heating up now is climate changes. November last year, temperatures was about 20 degrees Celsius higher than normal figures from Danish Meteorological Institute showed. The warmer climate slashes the Arctic Sea ice, which in January this year averaged 13.38 million square kilometers, 260,000 square kilometers less than the year before, the previous lowest January level. Compared to the average from 1981 to 2010, 1.26 million square kilometers of ice – the size of South Africa – have disappeared.

This means new areas of the Arctic are now available – and potential oil and gas in billion-scale. But as in the curious case of Hans Island, it is not clear, who has the right to the Arctic. Denmark, Norway, Canada, Russia and US have all made claims to parts of the Arctic. The five countries all have their own Exclusive Economic Zone within 370 kilometers of their respective coastal line, but it still leaves huge sum of undiscovered resources and possibilities up in the air – or on the ice.

For instance has Denmark made in 2014 a grandiose bid for 895,000 sq km of the Arctic – about 20 times the size of its mainland – on behalf on Greenland.

“The submission of our claim to the continental shelf north of Greenland is a historic and important milestone for the Kingdom of Denmark,” Martin Lidegaard, the foreign minister, said at the time.

These claims were criticized by one of the world leading experts on Arctic sovereignty, Canadian professor at the University of British Columbia, Michael Byers: “It is ironic that the only country that right now could be said to be acting provocatively in the Arctic is Denmark. That is out of character with the country’s tradition of constructive diplomacy,” he told Danish paper Politiken back then.

Not surprising, Russia sees the ownership differently. Russia’s bid cover 1,3 million sq km of the Arctic with almost half of it overlapping the Danish claims. This don’t concern the Russian Minister of Natural Resources Sergey Donskey though, who was saying to the Barents Observer: “We are confident that the Commission members (UN International Seabed Authority) will make their decisions objectively based on the norms of international law”, while also trying to make a deal with Denmark, that so far has been rejected.

History repeats itself 

But it’s no longer just talk in the Arctic conflict. Russia is ready to reopen or create six military bases in the Arctic. British daily The Independent reports that these bases may include military jets. Old arctic bases are also being given a modern overhaul, and Russia is spending big to winterize military hardware. “Russia in biggest Arctic military push since fall on the Soviet Union”, the Independent reported this January.

“The modernization of Arctic forces and of Arctic military infrastructure is taking place at an unprecedented pace not seen even in Soviet times,” Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of Moscow Defense Brief, told Reuters

He also told two special Arctic brigades had been set up, and that there were plans to form a third as well as special Arctic coastal defense divisions.

“Russia’s military activity in the Arctic is a bit provocative,” said Barabanov. “It could trigger an arms race.”

Barabanov’s fear could come true. Alaskan senator Dan Sullivan told the Washington Free Beacon that US is falling behind Russia. Russia’s has recently built 14 airfields and arctic ports, four new Arctic brigade combat teams, and 40 icebreakers, some of which are nuclear powered, with another 11 in development. The Unites States has one functioning icebreaker—the other is broken, Sullivan said.

Power and oil

You might have asked yourself, why Russia is mobilizing military, US talking about gearing up and Denmark and Canada are passive-aggressively removing each other’s flag from time to time. The battle is about more than just barren islands and ice – it’s more about what’s underneath it.

The Arctic contains huge oil and gas possibilities, but lowere oil prices could make the North Pole less interesting for companies. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Estimates predicts that some 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of its untapped oil lies in the Arctic. To put that into perspective, investigative media Vocativ estimated that the natural gas and oil in the Arctic is worth a monstrous $17,2 trillion – bigger than the entire US economy. This estimate doesn’t even bring in other potential resources that could be found in the arctic as uranium and gold. With such numbers in mind, it is no surprise, Canada have spent $200 million on expeditions surveying the ocean floor to prove its claims to territory in the region.

So far has American President Donald Trump not addressed to arctic, but he is more focused on traditional energy resources as oil and gas than his predecessor. For potential American oil-adventure in the arctic to come true, President Donald Trump must however first reverse an Obama-ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, which he issued in December to freeze the development. But as Trump has already shown, he is not afraid of undoing Obama’s work.

Aside from resources, the Arctic also possess strategic value for the classic rivals US and Russia and important ship routes for trade. As ice is melting away on Greenland, an old American nuclear-powered military base will resurface, that was built during the Cold War in 1959, Motherboard VICE could tell. And it seems, that the old base won’t be the last thing from the Cold War to reemerge. Russia now has seven military bases within the Arctic circle, and an American military report from 2016 recommended strengthen of American capabilities in the region including an upgrade of the Thule Base in Greenland. As both nations looking to bolster themselves, a new cold-conflict could be upcoming.

Despite all involved countries have stated that they will accept UN-decision on the right to the Arctic, a conflict is luring. The have all again and again stated their right and discredited the other’s. Furthermore, have Russia shown its military and territorial will despite western condemnation and Donald Trump have taken a swipe on UN saying it is not solving problems, but creating them. UN will consider Russia’s bid in July-August at a session. Whether the big two will accept UN’s decision is up for question.

First under the pole

In the days of exploring and colonization, a flag claimed the territory. The symbolic effect is this day still in effect. It’s not only Denmark and Canada, who tried to claim land the old fashion way by planting a flag in the desired soil. 10 years ago, Russia sailed two mini submarines and planted a one meter titanium Russian flag under the ice on the North Pole.

“It’s a very important move for Russia to demonstrate its potential in the Arctic. It’s like putting a flag on the Moon.” Sergei Balyasnikov, a spokesman for the Arctic and Antarctic Institute, said to The Guardian back then.

Back-then Canadian foreign minister, Peter MacKay, responded to CTV with: “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say: ‘We’re claiming this territory’,”.

And it seems Peter MacKay is right. It’s not enough to just plant a flag. This might end up with more than a friendly tease of flags and alcohol as in the conflict of Hans Island. The battle for the Arctic will more likely bring thoughts back to the cold war and the conflict is currently getting warmer and warmer.


Geographical overview of claims and overlaps of the involved nations
Source: IBRU, Durham University















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